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COVID-19 Tests are in Short Supply. Even People With Symptoms are Left in The Dark

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The following article was originally published March 24, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.

LAist and KPCC logos

Story by Robert Garrova

After traveling to Seattle recently, Karina Ortiz and her brother came down with fevers. Ortiz said they were tested at Cal Poly Pomona for influenza A, B and mono. All came back negative. Their fevers didn't go away, so Ortiz decided it was time to ask for COVID-19 testing.

Woman looking at bin of medical vials | Courtesy of the County of Los Angeles
Woman looking at bin of medical vials | Courtesy of the County of Los Angeles

"Every person I've called, every doctor I've called, every health department I've called has been shutting their doors because there is no testing," Ortiz said.

Strict guidelines have meant people like Ortiz are told they're not sick enough for testing. Her doctor instead prescribed her Tamiflu and antibiotics.

While she waits for some peace of mind, Ortiz is trying to keep herself and her brother away from vulnerable family members: She lives with her dad who suffered a heart attack and an 85-year-old grandma.

"I'm extremely anxious, I'm scared for my family," Ortiz said.

A SHORTAGE OF SUPPLIES

Ortiz is not alone in her frustrations. As of March 23, about 5,700 people have been tested for COVID-19 in a county with a population of more than 10 million.

Dr Clayton Kazan is the medical director for L.A. County Fire Department. But as of last week, he has an additional job: coordinating the expansion of COVID-19 testing across the region.

"The email inbox looks like letters [to] Santa Claus," Kazan told us.

Kazan said he's had conversations with Target stores about setting up drive-thru specimen collection. He said if he can get the right private sector partners on board, there could be dozens of sites across the county.

But the problem right now isn't finding locations. Hospitals say they don't have enough swabs and other collection materials.

"They just keep saying, 'we need more kits, we need more kits,'" Kazan said. "So we're communicating with Health and Human Services both at the state and federal level to tell them that we are in desperate need of additional testing supplies."

Kazan said he's also looking at arranging for health care workers to collect specimens in places like skilled nursing facilities and homeless shelters.

Government officials continue to call attention to a shortage of nasal swabs and other testing equipment.

L.A. City Council President Nury Martinez wants Southern California factories to help. She's calling on companies to convert production lines to make both testing and personal protective equipment as soon as possible.

"We are urging production lines to start making the critical materials we desperately need to increase testing for the coronavirus," Martinez said. "We should not wait for the president to use his Defense Production Act. We are Los Angeles. L.A. County has the 26th largest economy in the world."

MORE TESTS ARE COMING

Los Angeles officials announced on Monday a significant increase in the county's ability to test for COVID-19.

L.A. City Councilman David Ryu said the county has secured an initial 20,000 new tests from South Korea-based company Seegene Technologies, Inc., as well as the promise of 100,000 tests a week for the L.A. area.

Dr. Kazan said they'll prioritize who gets the test, at first.

"Phase one will be ensuring access to first responders and health care providers," Kazan said.

Eventually, the plan is to have widespread public access to testing. In the meantime, people like Ortiz and her family are left in the dark.

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